Remember by Lisa Genova is a non-fiction book that explores how we do, and don’t, remember. Genova is a neuroscientist who’s also the author of five fiction books, all of which I’ve read. They feature characters with neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s (Still Alice) and Huntingdon’s (Inside the O’Briens).
The book begins by describing how memories are formed, and the amazing process by which creating memories creates structural and connective changes in the brain. Genova points out that popular understanding of how memory works can miss the mark. For example, memories aren’t stored in the hippocampus, and muscle memory isn’t stored in the muscles.
The book explains different types of memory, including semantic (described as the Wikipedia of the brain), episodic (for things that have happened to us), and prospective (things we have to remember to do in the future). You’ll learn why you go into a room and forget what on earth you’re there for, and Genova reassures readers that using a to-do list isn’t somehow cheating.
As much as you might like to think that your episodic memory is quite accurate, Genova bursts that bubble. When the original memory was encoded, it didn’t capture everything that was going on at the time, just what stood out to you. What I found really fascinating was that each time we recall a memory, it changes a bit, and this overwrites the original memory, so it’s like an old-school game of telephone where the original message gets more and more garbled as it gets passed along.
Genova also explains that, when faced with leading questions, people will fabricate memories, and eyewitness accounts are highly unreliable. That certainly doesn’t bode well for our legal system. Do you feel confident that certain memories are accurate? Turns out that confidence has no bearing on their level of accuracy.
There’s a chapter devoted to tip of the tongue experiences. These occur when we know a word but can’t immediately bring it to mind until it jumps out at you two hours later while you happen to be sitting on the toilet. Doing this (and doing it quite regularly) is not, in fact, a sign that you’re losing your mind. In my case, sometimes I feel like my mind is permanently lost, but that’s a whole other issue.
The book is full of surprising tidbits and explanations, like the Baker/baker paradox, whereby you’re more likely to remember someone is a baker than you are to remember their name is Baker. Putting people in boxes can be bad in terms of discrimination, but apparently it helps us to remember.
You’ll learn the difference between normal age-related memory changes and the changes caused by dementia. There are also tips to improve your memory (chronic stress bad, sleep very, very good). Finally, there’s an appendix that pulls it all together, including the specific things you can do to improve your memory.
While the book is very informative, it’s presented in a conversational rather than academic tone. The examples used are realistic and help to make the concepts relatable. Genova seems very authentically present in the writing, and isn’t afraid to make fun of herself, such as when she’s describing her fussy coffee order that the baristas at Starbucks manage to remember.
This book made my inner geek very happy, but I think it will be much more widely appealing than simply my inner geek. Memory is obviously very important to all of us, and this is a great opportunity to learn more about it.
Remember is available on Amazon.
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.
You can find my other book reviews here.
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